Abu Dhabi Book Fair 2021: US author Tayari Jones reveals how Oprah Winfrey changed her life

The writer came to realise major success after the media mogul picked her novel 'An American Marriage' for the Oprah Book Club

Tayari Jones, author of 'An American Marriage', appeared as part of this year's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Supplied
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The Oprah Book Club effect is a very real phenomenon.

Tayari Jones experienced this firsthand when entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey added her 2018 novel An American Marriage to the influential reading list.

The result was a debut in the bestseller's chart, a mention in former US president Barack Obama's 2018 summer reading list and exposure leading to the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction.

Appearing via Zoom as part of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Sunday, the US author admits that while her previous three novels – including 2002 debut Leaving Atlanta and 2011's Silver Sparrow – were acclaimed, they were read by small and dedicated audiences mostly comprising African-American women.

That changed with a single phone call in October 2017, five months before the release of An American Marriage.

"It was from a blocked caller and when I said 'hello', the reply was, 'Hey, this is Oprah,'" Jones recalled.

"She told me she had read my novel and wanted to use it for her book club. I wondered how she read my book because it wasn't out yet and still in manuscript form. Oprah just said, 'People, give me things.'"

Preparing for stardom

While a non-disclosure agreement meant an agonising wait before she could share the news with fans or friends, it did give Jones time to prepare for the ensuing attention.

"I actually called my first writing teacher whom I met when I was a teenager in the 90s; she also had an Oprah Book Club pick. She was the only person I broke the agreement with because I needed to know what to expect," Jones said.

"She told me to make sure I nurture my relationships in advance, that my life was going to change and I wouldn't have the same time for people.

“She told me they need to know that I love them because once all the noise dies down, I was going to need my existing friends.”

Jones recalls being publicly recognised for the first time amid “a tantrum” with officials at London’s Heathrow Airport over an ID issue.

"And then [the official] said, 'Oh, we read your book in my book club,' and I was so embarrassed," Jones said, laughing.

"And I was like, ‘I am usually a very nice person.’ That was a moment of adjusting to the idea that someone knows who I am."

It also confirms the notion that, like a lot of things in life, success often comes at the right time.

Jones puts An American Marriage's strong reception down to it reflecting the current racial unrest in the US.

A story about how the lives of an African-American couple are ripped apart as a result of a wrongful criminal conviction, the novel highlights some of the problems with mass incarceration in the US and its acute impact on their community.

It is an uneasy topic taking on resonance during the Black Lives Matters movement.

"If American Marriage was published five years ago during the Obama years, it would not have been successful because there wasn't an appetite for black people writing about systemic racism. There was sense of 'you got your president, what more do you want?'" Jones said.

"But what came out during the Trump years was people being more curious about literature as a form of resistance. So American Marriage was my best writing and the right book for the time."

Fantasy authors say it’s all about the details

What about stories transcending time and space? Do they have anything to say about the world today?

These are questions fantasy authors Brent Weeks and Ahmed Bukhatir tackled in their evening session at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Sunday.

While the plots and twists may be fantastical, Weeks (the US author behind best-selling series The Night Angel) said the genres still offer intellectual ways to provide pertinent commentary.

This is down to the often rigorous research undertaken by authors as part of the writing process.

"What I love about fantasy is that it gives us a broad canvas to paint upon. While I can essentially make up whatever I want as long as it is interesting for readers, there is a lot of reading that I do, particularly about medieval history,” Weeks said.

“Also, having a large cast of characters that you are afforded with in fantasy means you can bring in people with all these different views. It all works to become a lovely canvas where I can explore certain problems."

Emirati writer and singer Bukhatir, who is working on the follow-up to Dragon Boy and the Witches of Galza – physically released in 2014 and part of planned series about a village boy oblivious to the fact that he's a dragon – said the sprawling nature of fantasy allows the author time to sketch out the characters in depth.

“It gives you space to create a hero with flaws and then follow them as they go through their troubles," he said. "The reader can identify with the characters and maybe sometimes see themselves in them."

While the details are appreciated, they also pose a common problem for fantasy authors.

"After writing about a million words you start to forget things," Weeks said. "I now have an assistant who sometimes looks up things from me from other books in the series for details about certain characters."

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until Saturday, May 29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, under safety precautions and a hybrid programme of in-person and digital events.

More international and regional authors will appear, either physically or online, including British historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes. There are also performances by Emirati and Lebanese poets Afra Atiq and Zeina Hashem Beck, and the winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

More information on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is available at adbookfair.com